Queuing for UK study

Hong Kong and mainland students flock to Britain, writes Ellen Sheng

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 June, 2012, 12:00am

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Maggie Li never considered boarding school in England for her two children, but when the opportunity arose, she went for it.

Her son Andi studied at Diocesan Boys' School, a top-ranked school in Hong Kong, but he 'struggled a lot', Li said. 'Everyday he was exhausted when he came home, but he still needed tutorial classes. He was not happy.'

Hoping to revive his spirits, she sent Andi to a summer English programme at Dulwich College, in southeast London. Andi liked the atmosphere and lobbied his mother to attend full time. 'At the time, he was 11 but he said, 'Mum, can I go to the UK?' I was quite shocked because he was just a little boy.'

Knowing that he was unhappy, she gave her blessing after he secured a spot at Dulwich. The family has been happy with the move and Li's daughter followed in her big brother's footsteps, attending boarding school in England when she reached the sixth form.

Li's experience is becoming more common. While British expatriates make up a big part of the student body at boarding schools in Britain, a growing number of Asians - particularly from China - are attending secondary schools in Britain.

According to last year's Independent Schools report, published annually by the Independent Schools Council (ISC) in Britain, non-British pupils with parents living overseas make up 5.2 per cent of the student body at ISC schools, or 11,252 pupils in total.

ISC represents more than 1,200 independent schools in Britain. Of the non-British pupils, 23 per cent were from Hong Kong and 14 per cent from the mainland.

Seeing opportunity, British secondary schools are increasingly recruiting overseas pupils, particularly from Asia. They are also expanding in the region with partnership schools on the mainland, in Hong Kong, Thailand, Singapore and South Korea.

Harrow, a school that was founded in 1572 under a royal charter, is opening a school in Tuen Mun in September. The school will be Harrow's third in the region, after Beijing and Bangkok. Other schools with Asian campuses include Dulwich College, Bromsgrove and Marlborough. These schools cater to children of expatriates in Asia as well as local pupils.

Christopher Hammerbeck, executive director at the British Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, sees the growing number of Hong Kong and mainland pupils attending British public schools as a sign of how the commanding heights of the global economy have shifted to Asia.

'During the days of the British empire, people living overseas wanted somewhere safe, with high-quality education in a secure environment and that typified the British approach to life in education, sporting and team events,' he said. Those reasons remain valid today, with more corporate executives based in Asia.

Although most Hong Kong students in Britain are undergraduates - there were 8,760 of them during the 2010-11 school year, according to the British Council - secondary-school students are not far behind. Last year, there were 5,859 secondary-school pupils from Hong Kong in Britain. For Hong Kong and mainland parents, the attraction of a British-style education is obvious - fluent English, a higher chance of attending a top British university, and a more balanced life embracing not only academic subjects but also sport, music and drama.

Vincent Wong, whose two sons attended boarding school in Britain, said he initially suggested that they study abroad because he saw more opportunities in Britain than in Hong Kong.

'My two sons studied at one of the top schools in Hong Kong, but with the time they spent on education, they had very little time for sport and other things. More than 80 per cent of their time was spent in academics,' he said.

Wong said he did not consider international schools in Hong Kong because he felt his sons' chances of gaining admission to a well-regarded British university would be improved by them being there.

His eldest son was accepted to Cambridge, Wong said, and is now studying medicine to become a doctor. The younger son is attending Dulwich.

Tony Binns, marketing director at Dulwich College, said: 'A lot of Hong Kong and Chinese parents got wise to the fact that there's a real pressure-cooker effect in Hong Kong. [The British] style of education has a number of advantages. Students study hard but are also encouraged to get involved in extracurricular activities and develop as rounded people.'

Mel Mrowiec, headmaster of Harrow International School Hong Kong, said its holistic approach to education made it attractive to expatriate and local families.

In the last few years, a few additional factors have worked in favour of promoting British education - namely the weakening British pound and uncertainty over Hong Kong secondary school reforms, according to Sophia Chan-Combrink, head of education and society at the British Council in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong has revised its secondary school and university system. For instance, it has discontinued the HKCEE degree and made university study four years instead of three - in line with educational systems in North America. The issue has come to a head this year with the last batch of students in the old secondary school system starting their university studies at the same time as the new batch.

Hong Kong universities have been preparing for this onslaught of students, which would essentially double the number of entrants. This has worried parents and students and some have been seeking to exit from the system altogether.

'The confluence of factors has made studying in the UK a growing option,' Chan-Combrink said. The weaker pound made a British education, in many cases, more affordable than a United States degree, she said. Another effect of the latest educational restructuring is that the average age of applicants to British boarding schools is now younger than before. That's because the new system makes it harder for older children to stream into the British system. Last October, Dulwich's number of applicants from Hong Kong for years nine and 10 doubled from 2010, Binns said.

Despite these factors, Binns said there had been a long-standing tradition of Hong Kong students studying in Britain, given the former British colony's historical ties. As part of the historical legacy, for instance, local civil servants get a subsidy for overseas school fees.

In 1988, Dulwich hired Binns as an English teacher. He became the school's marketing director in 1999, overseeing marketing for Hong Kong and the mainland over the past 12 years. When he started at the school, Dulwich had perhaps one or two pupils a year from Hong Kong, Binns said. The number is now nearly 10 new pupils a year.

In comparison, the mainland market almost did not seem worth the effort, because Hong Kong was already very strong, Binns said. But the market has matured over the years and mainland pupils have evolved as well, he said, noting that their command of English was significantly better than a decade ago. Last year, the number of mainland pupils studying in ISC schools rose 8 per cent to 3,708.

For those who want to stay closer to home, some well-known British schools are expanding in Asia. Harrow, gearing up for the opening of its school in Hong Kong, expects 750 pupils in all year groups, except years 11 and 13. It expects to eventually accommodate 1,500 pupils, with half the places reserved for boarders.

Dulwich, a traditional boys' school founded in 1619, now has five mixed campuses in Asia, with four on the mainland and one in Seoul. It also plans an A-level programme in September in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, and to open another school in Singapore in 2014. Bromsgrove, a school that started in the Middle Ages, opened a campus in Bangkok in 2005.

The British schools in Asia act as cultural ambassadors of a sort, teaching not only English and history but also introducing British values. Like most good ambassadors, the schools have adapted to local environments.

At Harrow on the mainland, Putonghua is compulsory until Year 5 and Putonghua is available for study from ages three to 18.

'It is clearly more appropriate, if in China, to learn about the geography in China rather than the UK or Scotland,' said Ralph Mainard, deputy master (external relations) at Dulwich.

The tuition for these schools is high for the region, but lower than costs in Britain. Tuition fees for Harrow in Hong Kong start at HK$110,900 a year for kindergarten to HK$150,800 for years 12 to 13. An additional HK$88,000 a year is levied for boarding of seven days a week, culminating at a maximum fee of HK$238,800.

In contrast, Harrow in Britain charges GBP30,930 a year (HK$372, 600) for tuition, accommodation and other costs such as textbooks and laundry.

Excluding boarding costs, Harrow's tuition fees in Hong Kong are roughly comparable with those of other international schools. Fees at Hong Kong International School range from HK$74,300 a year for a half-day kindergarten programme to HK$172,200. There's also an annual capital levy of HK$15,000. Kellett School, a British international school, charges annual fees of HK$116,500 for kindergarten and primary school, and HK$151,700 for secondary school, plus a debenture that ranges from HK$80,000 to HK$10 million.

Most schools in Hong Kong have debentures to help finance capital costs. Harrow has debentures ranging from HK$6,000 to HK$3 million. Debentures at Hong Kong International School, which cost HK$500,000, are fully subscribed.

Despite the high price tags, demand for international school places in the city is extremely high because expatriates and wealthy Hong Kong families choose to send their children to such schools. Invariably, there are far more applications than available places. For instance, Chinese International School has an acceptance rate of about 10 per cent.

When counting partnership schools in Asia, Dulwich College now has more pupils in China than it does in Britain. Its partnership schools are run by Shanghai-based Dulwich College Management International, a firm wholly owned by governors of Dulwich College.

Dulwich would not disclose what portion of their revenue comes from overseas, but given that most of their pupils are in Asia, it would be a fair guess that a significant amount comes from partnership schools.

'It's worth remembering that Dulwich in London is not out to make a fast buck,' Mainard said, noting that Dulwich, like most famous schools in Britain, is a registered charity, not a private company. 'What money we generate is ploughed back into buildings in London and bursaries.'

In Hong Kong, where international school spaces are insufficient, the introduction of a new international school - British or otherwise - is certainly welcome.

'The search for high-quality education is a global thing,' said Hammerbeck, whose three children attended boarding school while he was stationed in Germany and in Hong Kong. 'My three kids went to fantastic schools. It was a sacrifice and I have no regrets whatsoever. It gave them stability and a strong start in life.'